News & Politics

A Night Out: Harman Center for the Arts Annual Gala

Washington celebrates Shakespeare with dinner, dancing, and Mickey Rooney.

Mary Bird with performers at the Harmon Center Gala. Photo by Chris Leaman.

>> See more photos from the gala in our photo slide show here 

What: Harman Center for the Arts Annual Gala

Where: Harman Center for the Arts and the National Building Museum

When: Sunday, October 25, 6 to 11 PM

Ticket prices: $750 per person, $15,000 per table

Why: To fundraise for the center’s outreach and educational programs (fans of the Shakespeare Free for All, say thanks), to honor British actor Sir Ian McKellen (known to many as X-Men’s Magneto) with the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, and to give the Sidney Harman Award for Philanthropy in the Arts to Heidi and Max Berry.

The Agenda: Theater patrons walked up the red carpet and into the Harman lobby for drinks and socializing an hour before curtain. At 7, guests were ushered into the theater for award presentations and a series of scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Actors from the Shakespeare Theatre Company cracked highbrow jokes between Synetic Theater’s goblinesque, eerily unspoken “That Shrewd and Knavish Sprite” performance, Step Afrika’s powerfully rhythmic Zulu dance number, and a surprise appearance by Mickey Rooney. The actor—who at age 15 played Puck in the 1935 movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—received a standing ovation for his revival of the Fairy King’s jester. Ian McKellen’s acceptance speech—peppered with smart quips, a soliloquy from Sir Thomas More, and a flawless English accent—was met with similar enthusiasm. After the show, guests followed a wood fairy through the crisp autumn evening to the nearby National Building Museum for a sit-down dinner, drinks, and dancing.

The Scene: Disco, fairies, and a whole lot of glitter collided in the dinner party’s opening entertainment—guests were greeted by roller-skating, hot-pants-clad male dancers gyrating to Alicia Bridges’s “I Love the Nightlife” and other ’70s hits. Ladies and gentleman, we are still trying to figure out why that was deemed a good idea.

Though the beginning sequence was met with confused stares and lackluster participation, the mood began to change when partygoers sat down to eat. Centered around tabletop trees adorned in butterflies and crystals, guests settled into introductions and dinner-party conversation almost immediately. Mickey Rooney and Ian McKellen chomped away merrily at table 21 and intermittently stopped to chat with fans such as Shakespeare Theatre actress Kate Nowlin. The National Building Museum’s center fountain was surrounded with lush green shrubbery to further the Midsummer Night’s theme, and a rather interesting scarecrow/fairy centerpiece hung from the ceiling. Though we didn’t stick around for the very end, it was a little sad to see the wood-paneled dance floor so underutilized.

Food and Drink: Design Cuisine catered the three-course meal, which began with picnic baskets full of hearty French bread and shareable plates of mushroom-and-goat-cheese spread, black-olive tapenade, and pâté. Artfully arranged braised lamb, carrot-parsnip purée, and string-tied haricots verts followed soon after. Dessert included espresso and salted caramel ice cream with chocolate sorbet.

Fashion: Washington played it safe at this black-tie event. Men stuck to black tuxedos, bow ties, and vests, though—this being the theater crowd—we did see the occasional ponytail and whimsically printed cummerbund. Women favored strapless gowns and pashmina shoulder coverings, or variations on the classic Carolina Herrera dress shirt and evening skirt. Standouts included a backless jade-green chiffon jumpsuit, the most expensive-looking tangle of pearls and diamonds we’ve ever seen atop an off-shoulder white satin top and black mermaid skirt, and one attendee’s humorous light-up glasses and sequined American-flag vest.

Boldface names: 4 out of 5.
Swankiness: 4 out of 5.
Food and drink: 4 out of 5.
Overall exclusivity: 3 out of 5.

Total: 15 out of 20. 

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Sarah is the Editor-in-Chief of Washingtonian Bride & Groom, and writes about weddings, fashion, and shopping. Her work has also appeared in Refinery29, Bethesda Magazine, and Washington City Paper, among others. She is a Georgetown University graduate, lives in Columbia Heights, and you can find her on Instagram at @washbridegroom and @sarahzlot.